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April 2019: J. Sterling Morton, The Man Behind Arbor Day

Arbor Day originated with J. Sterling Morton, pioneer agriculturist of Nebraska and father of The Morton Arboretum’s Founder, Joy Morton.

Julius Sterling Morton was born April 22, 1832 in Adams, New York to parents Julius Dewey Morton and Emeline Sterling Morton. In 1834, the Morton family left New York for Monroe, Michigan. During J. Sterling’s childhood in Michigan, his interest and curiosity in nature and agriculture began to bud.

A sepia cabinet card of a 16-year-old J. Sterling Morton.

J. Sterling Morton at age 16.


During his teenage years, J. Sterling attended Wesleyan Seminary (now Albion College). At Wesleyan Seminary, he met Caroline Joy French, whom he would later marry in 1854.

A black and white photographic print mounted on board depicting a 27-year-old Caroline Joy Morton.

Caroline Joy Morton at age 27.


On October 30, 1854, the day of their marriage, J. Sterling and Caroline headed for the Nebraska Territory to see what challenges and opportunities this new land offered. Upon arriving, J. Sterling founded and served as editor for the Nebraska City News and became active in politics. He served as Nebraska’s territorial secretary of state from 1858-1861 and was appointed as Secretary of Agriculture in the Glover Cleveland Administration from 1893-1897.

A sepia-toned photographic print mounted on board depicting Glover Cleveland's second administration cabinet.
Grover Cleveland Cabinet with J. Sterling Morton

(standing furthest right),second administration


In his family life, J. Sterling would stay married to Caroline Joy until her death in 1881.

Together they would have four sons, Mark, Carl, Joy and Paul.

A sepia-toned photographic print depicting J. Sterling Morton with his four sons.
J. Sterling Morton with his four sons


Arbor Day
During his break from politics between 1867-1882, Morton served on the Nebraska State Board of Agriculture, supporting better farming methods, conservation programs, and tree planting. During his time in Nebraska, Morton advocated for a day to celebrate and plant trees. In April 1872, the first Arbor Day was celebrated in Nebraska.

Since 1885, Arbor Day has been a public holiday in Nebraska, celebrated on April 22, in honor of J. Sterling Morton’s birth. Today, Arbor Day is celebrated around the world on various dates, depending on the best time of year for tree planting in that region. To learn about when your part of the world celebrates Arbor Day, visit the Arbor Day Foundation.


There will be a variety of events happening at The Morton Arboretum to celebrate Arbor Day 2019!
Arbor Day Block Party
Arbor Day Plant Sale
Arbor Day Tree Planting and Story Time
Arbor Weekend Celebration
Dress Like a Tree, Get In Free

Sterling Morton Library
Interested in learning more about the Morton Family? Visit the Sterling Morton Library’s online repository, ACORN. Here you can find photographs, correspondence, articles, and various other historic documents related to the Morton family and The Morton Arboretum.

The Sterling Morton Library is currently digitizing its collection of Morton Family Correspondence! To view what has been already digitized and what is in the works, follow the link here.

Books available in the library:
Morton Family

J. Sterling Morton by James C. Olson
J. Sterling Morton: Arbor Day Boy by Clyde B. Moore
Sterling's Carrie : Caroline Ann Joy French, Mrs. J. Sterling Morton 1833-1881 by Margaret V. Ott
Michigan and the Cleveland era : sketches of University of Michigan staff members and alumni who served the Cleveland administrations, 1885-89, 1893-97
A man of salt and trees : the life of Joy Morton by James Ballowe 

Arbor Day
The arbor day lady : an appreciation by Mary Louisa Hellings
Arbor Day by Diane L. Burns